The Sky Isn’t Falling Over Taiwan

Overly bleak pictures of Taiwan’s willingness and ability to defend its way of life are not only misleading, they play right into Beijing’s political warfare strategy
Photo: J. Michael Cole / TT
J. Michael Cole

This cannot be repeated often enough: Although the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is now the most powerful military in the Taiwan Strait, and despite the fact that the capability gap continues to widen in China’s favor, Beijing would much prefer to “win” Taiwan without having to fire a single bullet in anger than plunge into the fog of war, what with all the messiness and unpredictability of armed combat.

Although it is generally recognized that winning without fighting is a major aspect of Chinese strategy honed over centuries, many people — defense analysts among them — seem to develop severe amnesia when it comes to the question of Chinese designs upon Taiwan, the island-nation Beijing hopes to annex, “by force if necessary.”

Undoubtedly, in the past two decades or so the PLA has acquired and modernized capabilities that would ostensibly play a role in a Taiwan contingency, and it has held a number of military exercises (some of them high profile) simulating an amphibious assault on Taiwan.

However, for every drill practicing an attack against the island, armies of soldiers engage in silent, non-kinetic operations to whittle down perceptions of Taiwan’s ability to defend itself — and most importantly perhaps, to erode the willingness of Taipei’s allies to come to its defense should the PLA be activated at some point.

It is the job of PLA political officers at conferences, bilateral settings and in private exchanges, as well as in the media, to shape the cognitive environment in Beijing’s favor. On the issue of Taiwan, their approach is three-fold and operates under the overarching strategy of wining without fighting:

The Taiwan irritant: Rhetoric about defending democracy notwithstanding, Taiwan inconveniences Washington as it tries to develop its relationship with China, a rising superpower and the world’s second-largest economy. Though authoritarian, improving relations with the country of 1.3 billion people is more important than defending the way of life of 23 million people, even if Taiwan is one of the U.S.’ few real success stories in helping democratization. Washington needs Beijing to address key issues: global warming, the global economy, proliferation, and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Therefore, sacrificing Taiwan is the “lesser evil.” Being too vocal about helping the island threatens Beijing’s cooperation on a set of pressing global issues.

Inevitability: Unification of Taiwan and China is only a matter of time. U.S. support for and arms sales to Taiwan may buy the island some time, but Beijing has a patience that is civilizational in scope, while the West wants immediate results. Why poison your relations with China when no matter what you do, the result will be the same?

Taiwanese won’t fight, so why should you? Taiwan’s armed forces are no match for the PLA. Its soldiers are demoralized, its security apparatus entirely penetrated by Chinese intelligence, ordinary Taiwanese won’t fight and can be bought for a handful of Renminbi. Since Taiwan isn’t willing to do what is necessary to fight an invading force, and since their society is so easily corruptible, why should you send your own men and women to fight — and possibly die — in their stead? And why should you involve yourself in what is at heart a “domestic” affair, the remnants of an unfinished civil war between brothers?

This, in a nutshell, is the political warfare triumvirate. That it rests on completely false assumptions about Taiwan is of little importance. What matters is that defense experts, academics, and politicians in Washington and elsewhere buy it. And a surprising number of people do, people who should know better. Never mind that if a PLA officer pitches it in perfect English, he or she very likely is a political officer whose job is to convince you that Taiwan is a lost cause, a dream not worth defending.

The worrying part is that people who are not PLA political warfare officers are also spreading the Chinese gospel and sometimes do so in highly influential publications. Take, for example, a recent op-ed by Wu Shang-Su in Defense News, a magazine that has wide readership at the Pentagon.

Wu, a research fellow in the Military Studies Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who formerly worked at Taiwan’s National Defense University and the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, paints a very bleak portrait of Taiwan’s defense situation. Worse, his views dovetail with China’s political warfare strategy.

His commentary, titled “The Gradual Undermining of Taiwan,” argues that PLA “forward deployed” units passing off as non-combatants (“only 1 percent of Chinese visitors is tantamount to two divisions and more than 1 percent of those visitors could be involved in a military action against Taiwan”) could prepare the ground prior to a PLA invasion. Using relaxed trade regulations, experimental free-trade zones and fishing vessels, these “underground” soldiers, who would presumably enter Taiwan as tourists or investors, would gain access to light weapons (firearms, anti-tank guided missiles and man-portable air-defense systems) to seize airports and conduct sabotage operations against radar sites and military bases, which “are not defended well.”

“This Chinese ‘fifth column,’ with only basic firepower, could paralyze the command chain and neutralize Taiwan’s air defense network, helping pave the way for an airborne invasion,” Wu writes, presenting a scenario that would make Hollywood scriptwriters envious. “The Chinese fifth column does not need to attack all targets of Taiwan’s air defense network but only establish an air corridor to the Songshan airport [Taipei International Airport] in downtown Taipei City, perhaps including the Taoyuan airport [Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport]. As long as the air corridor is open, the PLA’s airborne Army and other units can rapidly reinforce their pioneers with transporter aircraft and civilian passenger liners.”

These passages fit hand in glove with the third spoke of PLA political warfare strategy described above: Taiwan is poorly defended, in a low state of alert, its officials are inept. Having established these facts, Wu then points to the alleged corruptibility of the Taiwanese:

Since 2008, many political elites in Taiwan, both “pan-blue” and “pan-green,” have gained their political and economic interests in and from China. Thus, it would not be very difficult for Beijing to find one or more “quislings” to form a temporary regime under the former’s direct control […] Under the “one China” policy, this regime could be named Taiwan “provincial” or “district” government to display its subordination to the central authority of Beijing. As a result, the resistance in Taiwan would become a rebellion — a domestic affair.

A PLA political warfare officer couldn’t have done a better job on this one. The contention that it would not be too difficult to find a “quisling” to form a pro-Beijing temporary regime is confabulatory and can only be the product of someone who has bought Chinese propaganda hook, line and sinker. Finding would-be traitors is the easy part; finding one who has enough influence and legitimacy to impose such a regime on the entire nation is a different question altogether. Whether they are in the “blue” (Chinese Nationalist Party) or “green” (Democratic Progressive Party) camp, the great, great, great majority of Taiwan’s politicians are vehemently opposed to Taiwan (or the Republic of China, ROC) being ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Only if we accept the notion that Taiwanese are easily bought can we believe that such a scenario has any validity.

Echoing yet another element of PLA political warfare, Wu also seems to suggest that the public, which is adamantly opposed to unification with the PRC, would allow itself to be subjugated. In his scenario, Taiwanese citizens not only have no will to fight and no moral fiber, they simply don’t have a will. Just what Beijing wants us to believe.

Wu’s grim picture and scenarios many not stand up to scrutiny, but they nonetheless reinforce a dangerous perception of the situation in Taiwan and one that suits Beijing’s needs to perfection. An inefficient military, easily corrupted officials, a prostrate public — invading almost sounds like a walk in the park. Which foreign leader in his or her right mind would send men and women into harm’s way to defend such a basket case?

Not everybody agrees with Wu’s picture, however. Mark Stokes, an expert on the military and executive director at the Project 2049 Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., is one of them.

“If he [Wu] spent substantive time with Taiwan’s armed forces, he knows very well what costs the ROC could impose on the Chinese Communist Party and the PLA,” he told Thinking Taiwan in an e-mail response. “To a casual observer, Taiwan may appear on the surface to be a soft target. Underneath this thin veneer, however, are hardcore ROC soldiers, airmen, and seamen. They are indoctrinated to never think twice before putting a bullet through the helmet of any PLA soldier invading their land and homes. Traitors eventually would be smoked out.”

“The author also underestimates the capacity of Taiwan’s security forces to monitor underground operatives working on the island. They’ve been doing it for decades,” he says.

He continues: “Antipathy toward the Chinese, especially CCP cadre, runs very deep on Taiwan. It actually makes me nervous at times. I truly feel sorry for the poor PLA soldier or operative who is ordered to annex a neighboring state. Deep in their hearts, Taiwanese people are exceptionally dedicated fighters,” he said.

The Taiwanese military undeniably faces serious challenges, some of which Wu has identified in his article. It is essential that any leader, whether he or she be from the KMT or the DPP, addresses those by allocating enough funds for national defense, ensuring proper training and preparedness, and by re-emphasizing the mandate of the armed forces which is to defend the nation against external aggression, something that seems to have gotten lost under the current administration. Future candidates in the 2016 presidential election will have to come up with concrete plans to address those shortcomings, not only to strengthen the military, but just as importantly to reassure Taiwan’s allies abroad. There is no better way to counter Chinese political warfare. However, overstating the matter as Wu does in an influential periodical does more harm than good.

Taiwan is worth defending. And Taiwanese would fight.

“This is sensitive, but you should look at what portion of the Japanese kamikaze force were Taiwanese. These are a kind and gentle people, both men and women. But piss them off, then God help the Chinese soldiers,” said Stokes.


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

One Response to “The Sky Isn’t Falling Over Taiwan”

February 13, 2015 at 7:14 am, Alan Smith said:

The 5th column can give Taiwan some panic, but PLA also need to prepare certain amount of invasion force to land Taiwan and also to put pressure on Okinawa, it is not easy to mobile the force without leaving any trace.

The Taiwan armed force has close tie with the U.S., some Generals or Colonels may support by CIA to do the military coup to quickly remove “new government”. It only takes two-four hours for CV-22 in Okinawa base to transport the small amount of Marines to Taipei for “propaganda” and “unseen” special forces to build the forward post, of course, Marines can say they just go to Taipei to protect/evacuate U.S. citizens/Green Card holders to cover the action.

The most closure issue is how fast the PLA can land the enough amount of troops to suppress the resistance and the U.S. base in Okinawa. Otherwise the over-confident action might trigger the birth of new country.


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